These headphones come with a gimmick that makes a difference

The RHA T20is are different for the sake of being better


When a piece of technology becomes commoditized, the inevitable response from its maker is to try and obscure that fact by resorting to gimmicks. Smartphones offer some of the best examples of unnecessary over-engineering (see LG’s curved G Flex handsets) and gratuitous use of exotic materials (like on Motorola’s kevlar-plated Droids), but they’re hardly alone.

Headphone makers are just as susceptible to filling out spec sheets with meaningless jargon, and on first sight, I thought the RHA T20i in-ears to be just another in a long line of gimmick-laden tech products. They have a “revolutionary” DualCoil driver system, interchangeable tuning filters, and an injection-molded stainless steel build. And a $249.95 price tag. I didn’t think something so simple as a pair of earphones required all that sophistication and expense, but having listened to them for an extended period of time, I have to say the T20is are a pleasant exception to the gimmick rule.

RHA T20i review photos

Reid Heath Acoustics is a British headphone company whose products have attracted Apple’s attention and are featured alongside the more familiar Beats, Bose, and Bowers & Wilkins brands in the accessory section of Apple Stores around the world. This particular set, the T20i, comes with the Made for iPhone designation and an in-line microphone, which bumps its price up by $10 over the otherwise identical T20. Both look pretty much the same as their predecessor T10 / T10i models, whose attractiveness has been recognized with a Red Dot product design award. The molded steel provides a neat, durable carriage for the technology within and has a universal appearance that wouldn’t be out of place in almost any context.

What’s different about RHA’s T20 family is the unique driver and magnet arrangement on the inside of each earphone. Instead of the usual solid disc, RHA uses a ring magnet and puts two voice coils around it — hence the DualCoil branding — with the inner one handling the lower range of frequencies and the outer addressing the higher end. The audio signal is split when it arrives at the earphone, with bass and lower midtones going to one coil and treble and upper midtones going to the other. I’m not going to pretend to understand the mechanics of how this separation makes things sound better — I just know that it does.

RHA T20i review photos

Putting on the T20is for the first time was an eye-opening experience. I’ve messed around with expensive earphones before, but none have ever delighted me quite so quickly. It’s not that anything stands out in the sound of the T20is, but on the contrary, it’s the absence of any excess or distortion that is most notable. I’m used to most in-ear headphones exaggerating bass in order to make up for their physical constraints, but not this time. The bass produced by the T20i set is clear, precise, and just right. Neither overpowering nor underwhelming. The best analogy I can think of is a fine-tipped pen: it leaves a mark only where the writer intends and doesn’t spill a drop of superfluous ink.

Bass is important to me because it figures prominently in the sort of electronic music I usually listen to — Daft Punk, deadmau5, and DJ Shadow, just from the D section — but the T20is handle pretty much everything I throw at them with aplomb. The urgency of a wailing Eddie Vedder and the deep, soul-sapping despondency of Thom Yorke are both realized beautifully and effectively. Every instrument has a distinct position on the T20i sound stage, which isn’t extraordinarily wide, but still offers enough definition for me to easily distinguish between, for example, the guitar at my left temple, the bass at the right, the drums at the back of my head, and the vocals in the middle. I’m also constantly discovering subtleties about my favorite tracks that I just hadn’t noticed before: little background flourishes that had previously been lost in a bassy swamp. That being said, I do find the treble can sometimes feel harsh, though I suspect that’s down to the recordings I listen to. Violin concertos sound perfectly crisp and accurate, no matter what volume I turn them up to.

RHA T20i review photos

The best, and most important, thing I can say about the RHA T20is is that they just let me enjoy my music. RHA subscribes to the school of thought that headphones, like a camera’s lens, aren’t supposed to embellish or affect the signal. They are meant to convey it faithfully, and that’s what this pair of earphones does. And just like a good camera, the T20is continue to work well when I crank up the intensity: even at max volume, they remain composed and distortion-free. Their detail is almost excessive: during an episode of The Great British Bake Off on BBC iPlayer, I could hear judge Paul Hollywood’s heavy breathing and chewing as he was tasting the latest cakes on the show. Like HD video, high-resolution audio is a double-edged sword — and yes, the T20is are Hi-Res-certified, although I still can’t find a huge difference in listening to Hi-Res tracks. All of my positive impressions, and the Paul Hollywood episode, came from conventional, compressed audio.

As someone who listens to a lot of his music on YouTube, I realize I’m not exactly the target audience for the RHA T20is. These headphones are expensive to me, but they’re at the affordable end of the scale for people who put in the effort to ensure the highest quality of their aural experience. But you know what, the T20is are so good that they’re tempting me to change my ways. I still listen to the Best Brutal Dubstep mixes online, but I’m also growing more curious about higher-fidelity recordings and how they might sound. I can’t think of a better function for a piece of technology than its rekindling of a passion for cultural exploration.

RHA T20i review photos

In terms of day-to-day use, the RHA T20is are a little less practical than a conventional pair of in-ear buds. They’re larger and heavier, and putting them on and taking them off requires more ceremony to get just right. Colored tabs at the top of each earphone identify which is left and which is right and connect to a moldable hook that goes over the ear. Such over-ear hooks are a common solution to the greater bulk and weight of high-end earphones, but I’ve universally hated all the ones I’ve tried before. They’re just a nuisance to fit correctly. I was having the same issue with RHA’s set until I got a bit more aggressive in shaping the hook around the contours of my ear. That did indeed make for a more comfortable, or perhaps more tolerable, fit. What’s clear is that the T20is are not designed to be worn while running for the subway or in the midst of an intensive workout. The in-line mic works very well, but its integrated controls are a little too high on the wire, forcing me to reach almost up to my ear to change tracks.

Best enjoyed while sitting down

RHA bundles no less than 10 pairs of ear tips, including two sets of memory foam covers that should fit anyone. Those sit atop swappable tuning filters, which are clearly demarcated: one set boosts the bass, the default one keeps things neutral, and the treble filters emphasize the high end. For all this customization and multiplicity of options, I found myself most comfortable using the default set of filters and buds. They fit me best, and the reference sound is just too pure and accurate for me to wish to spoil it by prioritizing any part of the aural spectrum.

RHA T20i review photos

That’s really the thing I keep coming back to with the T20is: they sound great. Whether you mess around with all the user configuration options or just rip them out of the box, they will inevitably impress you. Take this from someone who isn’t an audiophile and usually treats music like fast food. I’ve been inspired by the RHA T20is to improve my music collection, both in its quality and diversity. These in-ear headphones are a great example of harnessing engineering and materials with a purpose. They’re different for the sake of being better, not just different.

The RHA T20i earphones are available to buy now at Amazon or through RHA's website, and will be at Apple Stores globally from October 6th. There will also be an Apple-exclusive black edition, which will differ only in having a black rather than silver shell.